April 3, 2014

Citizens Fight for the Northfield Post Office in Minnesota

Set just off of Bridge Square, the 1936 post office overlooks the Cannon River.

Whether it’s their historic downtown (listed on the National Register since 1983), the original Malt-O-Meal mill, which still produces the classic hot breakfast cereal, or the annual celebration of the town’s 1876 defeat of Jesse James and his gang during an attempted bank robbery, the city of Northfield, Minn., has always valued its history. Now, the town of roughly 20,000 residents, 40 miles south of Minneapolis, is fighting to save another prized possession: its 1936 post office.

Built in the heart of historic downtown Northfield, the brick-block post office overlooking the Cannon River has long been important to the community.

“There are places to sit and eat an ice cream cone and the popcorn wagon is down there all summer, and so with the construction and use of the post office right there, it really facilitated for public gathering,” says Michele Merxbauer, a community development coordinator for the city of Northfield.

Its central location also puts it within a mile of more than two-thirds of the town’s residents, including many of the students and faculty of St. Olaf and Carleton colleges. That proximity helps generate foot traffic downtown, which supports many local businesses and shops.

But back in the late '90s, residents began to hear the first whisperings of losing the post office site. Part of the issue was that because of the post office’s location, it was difficult for the trucks that brought mail to the facility to make deliveries. As a result, the distribution of mail moved to an annex in an industrial park south of town, while customer service functions remained at the post office.

The interior of the post office features a mural and historic mailboxes.

Then, in March 2011, the United States Postal Service announced that, because of economic woes, they would consolidate the town’s two post offices and move all services out to the newer annex. But Northfielders, not wanting to lose the vibrancy that the post office brought to downtown, assembled a movement against the change.

Within days, the town’s mayor and city council sent a letter to USPS expressing their concern with the proposed plan. From there, a community task force was organized to study how residents could fight to keep the national register-listed post office open.

Though, according to Merxbauer, USPS was concerned about the building itself and offered to ensure the preservation of its historic character through the sale of the building, they had little concern for the impact that closing the facility would have on the town’s lifestyle or economy.

“Less than 12 percent of our residences are within a mile of the annex building,” Merxbauer points out. “There is a large push in our community for non-motorized transportation, so the walkability of the post office is extremely important. Also, it’s a destination point, so [when] people go down to the post office they stop at the shoe store, they go into some of the other downtown businesses. So there’s been a lot of concern on what the economic impact on the other businesses would be if the post office were to close.”

In April, USPS officials attended a city council meeting to discuss alternative mailing systems that might mitigate the economic impact on Northfield, including the city’s idea of buying the facility for $1 and paying to maintain it while leasing it back to USPS for its use. Unfortunately, no deal was reached and the building went up for sale the following month.

The Northfield Post Office has endured many a brutal Minnesota winter.

During the next two years, the city of Northfield and USPS continued to exchange letters, though the two parties made little progress.

Finally, in February, Northfield officials and residents received good news from an unusual place: Berkeley, Calif. The town had been fighting to protect its own historic post office, and had won a mandate from Congress ordering that USPS pull its historic properties from the market until they could reevaluate the impact of their sale.

“They had called several times looking for our support, and we could offer them some things, but some of the things they were discussing, from a Minnesota standpoint, were a little too radical for us,” Merxbauer jokes. “But they did a great job.”

In Northfield, there was jubilation but also worry of what would happen next. Since the decision, residents and officials are trying to cover all of their bases, and a group has been formed to determine how the facility can be actively reused for something else.

“The hard part is that it’s oddly shaped, and it’s chopped up in a manner that’s going to make a reuse somewhat difficult,” Merxbauer says, but adds, “Northfield is very proud of its history, and goes to great lengths to protect that.”

Learn more about Historic Post Office Buildings, a National Treasure.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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